Cincinnatus was a farmer. In 458 B.C., as he was plowing his field, a representative of the Roman Senate travelled to the farm, and described the crisis facing the Roman nation in a fight to the death with neighboring tribes the Aequi and the Sabines. He told Cincinnatus that the Senate had determined to vote him dictator and give him all powers necessary to save Rome from the invaders. The farmer Cincinnatus became the patriot general Cincinnatus and accepted the charge, eventually leading Rome to a crushing defeat of its adversaries. With the roman world at his feet, he then did what was unheard of for a warrior general with absolute power. He gave up the power voluntarily and absolutely, and returned to his farm. He served the country that he loved, then returned to the farm that he loved. He never confused himself as to who he was, or what was asked of him.
Israel’s farmer general died today, on his farm, and like Cincinnatus , never confused his role as a savior general with his role as a citizen of the country he loved. In various roles, he helped lead Israel from its inception in 1948, through almost every conflict the nation faced over 50 years and returned to his farm until asked again to lead. Ariel Sharon had been in a coma since 2006, but according to his family, decided his time to leave the mortal coil was now. Sharon as through his life, determined his own timetable for action.
And lead he did, to the often stunning unpredicted results as interpreted by those that would be his eternal foes. Sharon was as he put it, a simple farmer, but as a military and political leader he was anything but simple. In the field of battle, he was a implacable foe of the enemy, strategic and innovative in action, and single minded in his determination to defeat those before him. In politics, he often brought his strategic vision into actions that flummoxed his opponents who could not appreciate the clarity of his singular focus, the permanent existence of a viable Israeli state. His strategic realism, saw each battle political or military, as a battle of survival, in which the outcome was to be contributory to the permanent existence of the state. All else was merely charade, he didn’t play charades. His foes despised him because there was no way to defeat him, and his friends struggled with him because he had already determined his victories before his actions. He gave voice to the adage that he achieved results, and left it to others to devise a theory to explain it.
From Israel’s formative battles for independence in 1948, to his spectacular victories against more powerful Egyptian tank forces in the Sinai in 1973, Sharon was a brilliant leader of troops and recognized tactical genius. Such heroes are enormous targets for critique, and Sharon’s aggressiveness was felt intolerable by some who felt Israel’s best position against its foes was an compromising co-existence. Sharon understood the concept of enemy and studied his enemies. He saw no conversion of Arab nationalism or Palestinian desires to seek the obliteration of the state of Israel, so he accepted all issues as to their positive or negative impact on Israel’s ongoing existence. He never made any assumption that he could trust others to protect Israel’s fundamental interests, and did not seek the trust or respect of his foes. To world liberalism and to Israel’s peace lobby, he demonstrated his intolerable flaws in 1982, when he did not hide behind excuses of a massacre of Palestinian refugees that occurred in Lebanon under his watch in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon to rout out increasing dangerous and aggressive Palestinian cells. As defense minister, Sharon sought the elimination of Palestinian forces from southern Lebanon and allowed the blisteringly vengeful forces at work in Lebanon to work toward that goal. In a country torn by competing forces of Christian Lebanese, Sunni and Shia, Druise militia, and a huge dose of Palestinian interlopers, Sharon permitted the Christian Phalangist forces to enter Palestinian refugee camps, to identify Palestinian fighters, and to the Maronite Phalangists, all Palestinians were usurpers to Lebanese territory. A massacre at the Sabra and Shatila camps ensued, and although the actual history of the raids are a confusing morass of Lebanonese versus Palestinian versus Syrian atrocities, the world blame fell directly on the shoulders of Sharon.
He was forced to resign, and returned to his farm in disgrace. And so he remained in the political wilderness, until the Palestinian Intifadas of the turn of the century brought Sharon’s version of realism rather than idealism back into vogue. Despite Israeli efforts for ten years to reach a negotiated accommodation with the Palestinians, The Palestinian leader Arafat found that 96% territorial concessions by Israel were insufficient to the 100% he felt appropriate, and turned the West Bank into a war zone. He achieved the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians and returned terror as a weapon to his negotiating technique.
Sharon as always was unaffected by enemies acting in expected ways. As leader of Likud and eventually the hybrid political party, Kadima, he became Israel’s eleventh Prime Minister despite his controversial background, and proceeded to turn the concepts of peace upside down. Seeing the Gaza strip militarily indefensible by Israel and meaningless strategically. he unilaterally pulled Israel out and left it to the Palestinians, stunning the world that always assumed he would see all of Israel’s military gains as inviolate. To that end he dismantled and moved Israeli settlements in Gaza, considered politically impossible, but achieved by Sharon in short order. Negotiating with Palestinian leader Abbas, following the death of Arafat, he determined that decisions henceforth regarding territory would be singularly based on Israel’s strategic defensive interests, and was on his way to a comprehensive process for permanence when he was suddenly silenced by a stroke in 2006. He remained in a silent coma until his passing today.
There is no telling as to what might have been the sequence of events with a Sharon in power for the first decade of this century. It is clear that his enemies are happy to see him gone, as he was unbeatable, and tireless in their destruction. It is also clear his country and neighbors lost the pathfinder that envisioned a way out of the blind idealisms and dysfunctional radicalisms that haunt the region today. Today the lion finally sleeps, and the world has lost one of its great leaders. Somewhere, as in the picture that leads this blog, Sharon and Moshe Dayan are again sharing the tactics that allowed the survival of Israel against overwhelming odds. The farmer of the Negev desert would remind Dayan, that even in the desert, unyielding will and visionary thinking can make for a bountiful harvest.